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The stakes in the writers' strike

November 30, 2007 | Page 3

TELEVISION AND film writers are locked in a battle with the entertainment industry over whether the writers will be paid for their work when it is shown on the Internet. In late November, negotiators from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) met for the first time since the strike began three weeks before.

PATRICK MULVIHILL has worked for USA Films, New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. Pictures during his 10-year film career and has been a WGA member since 2004. Here, he explains the high stakes in this struggle.

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IN 1988, members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike over several issues, one of the more important ones being the percentage they would be paid for the sale of a DVD.

The AMPTP (read: multi-national media conglomerates) said it had no idea how this DVD/home video model was going to work, and that the writers should take the four cents per DVD offered for a period of three years so that the AMPTP could study the system and then readjust the deal at the termination of the current contract.

After 22 weeks of striking, the television writers and show runners caved, certain that DVD sales had nothing to do with them. Three years later, when it came time to renegotiate that four-cent number, the AMPTP had seen enough of the mammoth wealth being generated, and rather than change the residual formula, it instead decided to give writers the finger.

In 2007, with the Internet changing the face of entertainment in ways that will make the DVD look like an 8-track, the studios are unsure of how the model is going to work. It's too new, they say. There is no way to fully grasp this confusing new medium that has only been around for a decade.

While they take three years to study the economic system the Internet has wrought, they reason, writers should receive the same DVD residual percentage for direct downloads and receive nothing for streaming use of their material.

Presently, material streamed on the Internet is deemed as "promotional." Every time they run episodes of Desperate Housewives in their entirety, the studios' reasoning is that they are doing so to promote the show. Of course, they charge advertisers who book ads on these podcasts, bringing in millions of free revenue per episode (estimated by conglomerate-employed prognosticators presently to be "only" $100 million per annum).

But the problem, the studios say, is they just don't know how many hundreds of millions they are actually going to make off of the Internet per year. So they would like to have that revenue stream for free for three years, at which time they will renegotiate in good faith.

It is this history that drives the current impasse between the AMPTP and the WGA, a history that steels the will of the writers to accept nothing less than a fair deal.

In July, when negotiations were first set to get underway, the WGA negotiating committee came with 23 negotiating points that are important to writers. The AMPTP came to those same negotiations with two proposals. It first offered the WGA $200 million in rollbacks on the existing deal, including such serious and thought-provoking points as "Writers will fly coach."

It then offered the real carrot: a deal with only $70 million in rollbacks. Take it or leave it, the studios said. No negotiating. No discussions.

The WGA rejected both proposals, and the AMPTP walked out, resuming negotiations three months later. It is now November 19, week three of the first writer's strike in almost twenty years.

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ON THE picket lines around every studio, it is astounding to see the solidarity among the WGA membership, from writers who don't earn much (I myself have averaged a staggering $55,000 a year over three-plus years of guild membership, clearly making me one of the caviar-quaffing malcontents waving his silver spoon in the air) to the Paul Haggises, Cameron Crowes, Sean Ryans and Stephen Gaghans of the world.

Normally reclusive, writers are out there together, swapping stories, and trading insights and theories about the strike and our craft--and virtually all issuing the same refrain: I don't care how long it takes, I'm here to the end. These are people who know very well that the strike in 1988 lasted almost six months--and not one of them is willing to admit anything but an unwavering commitment to a fair and equitable contract, regardless of the personal costs.

The importance of this negotiation is not lost on a single soul. As writers, our soul is our commodity. It is what allows us to write words that affect people, to write dialogue remembered long after we've heard it, to create for directors the blueprint they need to envision the images that eventually captivate us in theaters and on television.

It is the soul of writers that drives this industry forward--not accountants, not Byzantine legal staffs or corporate suits strategizing how to market those words and images. It is the people out on those picket lines who imagine these worlds and convey them in ways that entertain us, make us laugh and make us feel what it is like to be human, to know that we share experiences and that we are indeed connected.

That ability to express connections and render them palpable is bearing fruit, for as inherent as it is in our work, it is becoming more real in our lives every day.

In the press, there is a lot of blaming, finger-pointing and mudslinging; each side doing its best to discredit the other. But to the writers on the lines--the ones marching around studios with picket signs raised high in the air as they urge passing cars to "Honk" to show support--the issue has been crystallized both by a well-informed membership, but also by our ability to talk with each other out on the picket lines. Writers were taken advantage of then; they will not be taken advantage of now.

Regardless of the "paltry" revenue the Internet currently brings in to the corporate coffers, or the insistent claims that it will take years to know for certain how much it will generate, the bottom line is this: every person on the planet who understands the Internet and its constantly broadening technology knows that this is the defining medium for the coming century. And this is the defining moment as its true power is just beginning to become a reality.

Do we all know how much it will be worth in the end? Of course not. Is there any doubt that this number will be staggering? Of course not.

As writers have learned painfully, there is no second chance. You get what you bargain for up front, because what comes after flies proudly in the air, referred to in the 8-track's heyday as "The Bird."

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